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THE DISCLAIMERS: LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Hercules, Iolaus, Salmoneus, Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and back story are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction.
This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. The level of violence in this story is comparable to episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
SEXUAL SITUATIONS WARNING:
This story includes sexual situations. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. The sexual situations in this story are comparable to episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
In a large hall on Olympus, Ares, God of War, stood before Hera. The Queen of the Gods spoke. "Our plan proceeds. Your warlords are at least obedient, if simple minded. I will not forget your help. Once Hercules is dead, I will aid in reclaiming your warrior woman."
* * * * *
With a crash of metal, Xena blocked the sword with her own, then kicked the armored warrior hard in the stomach. He grunted and fell back a pace, only to press the attack again. To her left, Hercules smashed an opponent unconsciousness with one blow, then picked him up and slammed him into another. On the far left, Iolaus scored a deep slash on the sword arm of his foe, who fled as his sword fell from his useless hand.
Xena's sword met the warrior's blade once, twice, then slipped under his guard and ripped him open across the mid section. The warrior screamed and fell. Another crumbled beneath the fists of Hercules, and suddenly the three friends broke into the clear.
"We haven't much time, it's starting!" Hercules shouted, and Xena saw a faint red glow gather at the peak of the stone obelisk which thrust skyward at the top of the massive stone temple, one hundred yards ahead.
It was the work of Fate, the intervention of the gods, or perhaps random chance that had brought Xena to this battle. She was to meet Gabrielle in Trelane. The archery festival was in progress, and she had wanted to watch the tournament. Besides, some of the most beautiful bows in the world would be on display. Gabrielle chosen the time to do some exploration of ruins in a neighboring district.
Upon her arrival in Trelane, Xena encountered an disheveled, gnarled old man. He called himself 'Phinneous, Professional Traveler', although to Xena a description of 'Phinneous, wandering petty thief' seemed more likely. The old fellow told of a great Summoning in a region to the north. Parents in the villages and on the farms had risen two mornings earlier to find their children gone. Girls younger than 16, and boys younger than 12 were missing. At the same time armed men, under the command of the warlords Maximus and Gluteus, had sealed off the approaches to the Grey Stone Temple, which sat at the center of the effected area.
Phinneous had cost Xena two ales while telling his tale, which ended with, "The last I heard, soldiers were searching the villages, looking for any children that avoided the Summons... And killing any adults in their way. The Grey Stone Temple belongs to Hera, you know. A big, ugly building that squats out in the hills. It is said to be the source of her most powerful priests. It's all damn shame, I'm thinking." Stating the need for a 'trip out back', the old man shambled out, and did not return.
Trice, the town nearest the Grey Temple, was a day's ride away. After sending a message to Gabrielle, Xena rode south, only to find Hercules and Iolaus. Hercules was certain the children were at the temple, and he had stated, "The evil workings of gods require a sacrifice--and the innocent,
the great, or the beautiful--always make the best."
This day had been a blur. Xena had decoyed most of Maximus's force into a dead-end ravine, and Hercules sealed them in with a rock slide. It would take them several days to dig out. Meanwhile, Iolaus had captured a lieutenant of Gluteus. Under Xena's questioning, they learned enough to send a false message, which diverted the bulk of the Gluteus warriors on a fool's chase to the west. Night was fast approaching as the three desperately fought their way to the temple.
Stopping just long enough to scoop up an iron hard oak limb, Hercules lead the trio in a dash toward the temple. *We must make a fearsome sight,* thought Xena. All three were sticky with grime and blood. Xena was weary to her core, and Iolaus looked too tired to stand. Another score of warriors awaited them in a small grove, 40 yards from the temple's massive stone doors.
They crashed into the waiting troops. Hercules sent two flying with his first swing; Xena and Iolaus were quickly engaged on either flank. Today they were lead by the Hercules of legend--the hero who's presence on the battlefield could turn defeat into victory--the demigod who bested foes by the score and the hundred. Xena knew that Hercules was careful in battle. The strength that could break boulders and fling the discus into orbit could easily break something as fragile as a man. But he had often said that there were things worth fighting for, worth killing or dying for. And if Hercules had a hot button, it was the wanton sacrifice of children. Their foes were too numerous, too skilled for the usual care, and the time left was so very short. This would be the last battle for many of the enemy left in their wake.
*Thank goodness Gabrielle isn't here!* Xena thought, not for the first time. Their foes were elite warriors, each one fanatical in his devotion to Hera's service. While Gabrielle was good, and getting better by the day, she would be overmatched. And by now, the warrior in Xena knew, Gabrielle would have fallen.
A kick to the groin sent a warrior tumbling away; a quick spin and Xena hamstrung a second. Another went flying from Hercules's club, and he turned to help Iolaus, who was hard pressed by three opponents.
>From the corner of her eye, Xena saw two crossbow men emerge from the bushes to her right. The first fired at her, and with a quick move she deflected the bolt with her sword. The second fired at Hercules. Though his back was turned, he moved just enough and the bolt nicked the loose cloth of his jersey. Xena thought, *The privilege of demigods... I bet he doesn't even know he dodged it,* as she braced herself to meet the charging archers.
Suddenly, all their opponents were down, and the three ran the last yards to the temple. With amazement, Xena noticed that she was still uncut, although she had taken several vicious blows. She would have nasty bruises, and a rib might be cracked. While Hercules showed a number of superficial cuts, it was Iolaus who was most seriously hurt. He trailed the others, limping badly.
"Hercules, look!" Iolaus shouted, and he pointed toward the temple roof. The red light had strengthened, and pulsed as it streamed heavenward. Faint traces of a blue light were forming along side, pulsing in the opposite direction.
The giant double doors would not budge when Xena pulled on them. "They must be barred. I think I can jump to that opening," she pointed at an open window high in the wall, "slip in and open the doors from the inside."
"We don't have time for this!" Hercules cried, and he jammed his fingers into the small seam between the doors. The muscles of his back rippled, and a large chunk of door broke beneath his hands. "Stand back!" He took and new grip, and with a mighty heave the door tore loose, breaking into several pieces as it fell to the ground.
Xena was first through the broken doorway. There were a few torches ensconced on the walls, but the huge room was lit by an evil glow. On Xena's right were the children, who lay stacked and unmoving in piles on the floor. They were surrounded by a ball of red light which pulsed around them, then ran in a steady stream to the stone and crystal column that formed the base of the obelisk extending through the roof. The red stream rippled and ran up the right side of the column; down the left side a blue stream ran, growing stronger by the second.
Xena glanced left. In a ball of energy the color of blue flame stood five men: all dressed as acolytes of Hera. The face of each showed the early signs of a transformation. Immediately in front of the obelisk was a small altar, and beside the altar stood another servant of Hera. His skin was blue; his features were reptilian. "It's a Blue Priest!" shouted Iolaus.
"Great name," returned Xena, as they rushed to the room's center.
The Priest raised is arm. In his hand was a rod of crystal, which belched a
stream of fire at the three heroes, making them dive frantically.
Xena grabbed her chakrum and threw. It ricocheted off a stone statue, then cut the crystal rod in two as it passed the Priest. As the chakrum crossed the red energy stream it slowed, falling to the floor with a clatter.
"Xena, Iolaus, don't let any of the light touch you," Hercules shouted as he scrambled to his feet. "It will drain you too!"
The Blue Priest had snatched a golden sword from the altar, and he pointed it at Hercules as the son of Zeus approached. "You are too late, Hercules," the creature rumbled in a low voice. "Soon Hera will have five more priests like me to enforce Her will."
"We'll see," and Hercules ducked as the Priest swung at his head. The Priest lunged, trying to impale his foe. Hercules stepped to the side and kicked the sword into the air. Travelling in a lazy arc, it settled neatly in Hercules's hand. A single, powerful backhand swipe sent the head of the Blue Priest flying.
Hercules was running to the column before the Priest's body hit the floor. Xena and Iolaus scrambled behind him--to guard his back, and to keep a wary eye on the door for more of Hera's guard. The energy flickered over Hercules as he wrapped his arms around the column, straining to break it from its base.
There was a movement in the far corner of the room. From the shadows stepped a woman archer, dressed in white and wearing a winged helmet. Slowly she pointed the crossbow at Hercules. Xena reached for her chakrum--gone, on the floor and out of reach. Moving to her left, she placed herself between the archer and Hercules, readying her sword to block the missile.
Iolaus, standing next to Xena, saw it all in a terrible flash of insight. Xena didn't know; this was one of Hera's Archers... Divine beings armed with weapons forged by Hephaestus. The missile from this crossbow would tear through Xena's sword, and through Xena, like a knife through tissue paper.
Shouting, "Xena!", Iolaus shoved the Warrior Princess out of the way, taking her place as the Archer fired. With an angry buzz the missile flew, striking Iolaus in the chest and sawing through him in the blink of an eye. Deflected by Iolaus, the missile buried itself deep into the column an inch from the exposed back of Hercules.
With a resounding 'crack' the column broke loose. Chunks of roofing fell as Hercules pushed it to one side, so the column no longer touched it's base.
The energy flow along the column ceased, and the red and blue streams writhed in the room's center. An acolyte screamed. Suddenly, the twisting light turned completely red, and in a rush surrounded and entered the children. The five acolytes sank to the floor like so many punctured water blatters--becoming small, lifeless heaps on the floor.
Xena knelt by Iolaus. The Archer had not moved, as if waiting... Xena had gauged the distance of the Archer and herself from the door. Xena was closer; the woman in white would not be leaving this room alive.
Hercules, looking first to the children, then the acolytes, turned and saw the Archer. As he looked from her to Iolaus, she vanished. Xena, her face a mask, looked up from Iolaus and shook her head.
"No!" shouted Hercules. "I won't accept this!" He gathered his fallen friend in his arms and walked with deadly purpose out the broken door. Looking to the heavens, he gave a terrible, wordless scream. Though the torchlight at the front of the temple was dim, Xena saw the two vanish.
* * * * *
Hercules stood unencumbered in a mammoth, richly furnished chamber. Olympus. His wounds were healed; his clothing whole and clean. Before him, in a large chair, sat the figure of a man... old, but handsome and vigorous, with long flowing white hair. Ignoring the figure before him, Hercules looked wildly about the room, shouting, "Hera! Show yourself, you hag! Let's have this out, once and for all!"
Only silence greeted the shouts until the old man said, "She will not face you, son."
Whirling to face Zeus, Hercules said, "This is intolerable! My family, my friends, all destroyed by that witch, while you stand idly by!"
"You know I cannot reverse the workings of the other gods," and Zeus raise his hand to cut off the heated reply. "But Hera will allow me to restore your friend... With conditions."
"What?" Hercules stared angrily at his father.
"This is nothing but a scheme, of course... A trick to lead to your death, and I advise you not to accept." In response to the glare from Hercules, the King of the Gods continued, "But it seems Hera wishes for you to do a heroic good deed..."
* * * * *
Seconds after they had vanished, Hercules and Iolaus returned. Hercules carried his friend away from the temple and laid him carefully down in the grass under a large tree. Xena grabbed a torch and followed. All was quiet;
the tattered remnants of Hera's elite had fled.
Xena examined Iolaus by the light of the torch. He was unconscious, but breathing easily--and his wound, though nasty and deep, was partially healed. She looked at Hercules, who was staring back at the temple. "I don't know what you did, but he's breathing again. It looks as if he'll make it."
A child's cry drifted from the temple door. It was joined by another, and quickly grew into a chorus. "The children," said Hercules, "We must see to them."
* * * * *
In that other place of Olympus, Hera said, "We have him."
The bright morning sun shone down on the makeshift encampment. Hercules had insisted that no one spend the night in Hera's temple, so they slept under the stars. For Hercules and Xena, there was little time for rest. Some of the children had been injured during their journey to the temple. While Xena attended to the wounds, Hercules and a few of the older children had stripped the temple of anything that would work for bedding, plus gathered what food could be found. All the children had gotten some sleep, and with the help of a few parents that had appeared this morning, all had been fed. They would be starting for Trice as soon as Hercules returned.
Xena tied the last knot on Iolaus's litter. He had not yet regained consciousness, but seemed in no danger. The air shook with a loud rumble, and Xena looked up in time to see the front of the temple cave in and the roof collapse. Time to start rounding up the children; it would be a long walk.
Walking to the edge of the encampment, Xena noticed a small boy. He sat by himself on a stone, gently rocking and singing as he peered in fixed concentration at his hands, which were cupped close to his face. The lad could not have been more than five. Xena knelt beside him.
"What have you got there, son? It looks pretty important."
"I ain't your son. My name is Gaylen... It's my lucky rock," the boy replied. He held out his cupped hands, and Xena saw a shiny stone the color of amber. Smooth and shaped like an egg, the stone was the size of her thumb.
"It's pretty. May I look at it?"
"Well..." the boy looked at her suspiciously, "I guess so. But you promise to give it back. My Mom says you never know when you'll need some luck." He handed her the stone, then pointed at her belt, "What's that round thing?"
Xena took the stone. "Well, Gaylen, it's called a chakrum. I use it--"
"Xena!" She stopped and looked up. Hercules had returned, and he was surrounded by a mob of children.
"Here, Gaylen. I have to--" Xena looked around, but the boy was gone, apparently slipping away when she wasn't looking. With a shrug, she dropped the stone into her belt pouch. The lad would no doubt want it back.
Hercules carried a small girl in each arm as he approached. "We should get started."
"You certainly make a lot of noise for just one guy," Xena said as she waved at the ruins of the temple.
"Oh, that wasn't me," Hercules replied as he gently set down the girls, "just shoddy construction. A little pull on this support, a little push on that one... Next thing you know, the whole place falls down."
"Which reminds me," said Xena, lowering her voice, "what was with that red light? You warned Iolaus and me about it, but *you* went into it."
"Oh, that," Hercules's face grew dark. "Hera was draining the energy and life out of the children. The same would have happened to you and Iolaus. I was pretty sure it wouldn't effect me."
"Yeah, well... How's Iolaus?"
"Unchanged. I've fixed up a litter. I'd be worried, except his wound is healing faster than any I've ever seen. The gash on his leg looks good, too."
"Oh, he'll be fine." Hercules picked up another arm load of children. "He's probably just shamming so we'll have to carry him. Now, where's that litter?"
* * * * *
The slow march began. They met a dozen parents on the way, all heading for the temple. The extra adults provided welcome help as they worked to keep the hundred and some children all moving in the right direction. Gabrielle overtook the throng halfway to Trice, and immediately appointed herself in charge of Iolaus and the children most injured.
The group reached the town at dusk. One of the oldest children, a fourteen year old, was the daughter of Gelco the innkeeper, and the grateful man insisted the four heroes stay in his house, which was located behind the inn. "Comfortable, and private!" he repeated with a wink to all who would listen. "Just the place for the friend of Hercules to recover!"
The next morning found Hercules and Xena roaming the countryside, returning children and trying to find the parents of those too small to help. Gabrielle stayed in Trice. Twice Iolaus regained a groggy, semiconsciousness, just enough to drink water and warm broth. Her time away
from the house was spent at the inn, helping Gelco care for the remaining children.
It was late that evening that Xena met Hercules as he quietly closed the door to the main room where Iolaus rested.
"How's he doing?"
"Restless. He's talked a little in his sleep, but hasn't made sense. But at the rate that wound is healing, he should be up and moving around in a day or two."
Xena gave Hercules a tire smile, "Well, I'll just peek in and say goodnight to Gabrielle before turning in. I've got bruises of my own to heal."
Hercules reached out to stop Xena as she moved to the door. "Xena... We've been so busy I haven't had the chance to thank you. If you hadn't turned up, Iolaus and I might not have made it."
"Aww... All in a day's work," she replied.
"Just listen." He took her hand, "You've been a good... A very dear friend to me, and I appreciate that more than you can know. Thank you... For all that you've done." He gave her hand a final squeeze. "I must be going as well. Sleep well, Xena." She watched as he walked into the gloom, toward the rear of the house and the small bedroom there. It was time for her goodnights--her own bed was waiting.
Xena pushed open the door. The sitting room had been reserved for Iolaus, and he rested on a small bed near the fireplace. Gabrielle sat reading in a large, overstuffed chair next to him. She had spent the last night in that chair, and looked as if she intended the same tonight. With a glance at the bed, she rose and joined Xena by the door.
"I thought you'd already gone to bed."
"That's the next stop," Xena replied. "I've been talking with the town elders, trying to decide what to do. Some of those children are so young they really can't tell us where they're from. Those, plus the injured ones, will take some time to sort out... Still, we should be able to leave in a few days, depending..." and Xena looked to the bed by the fire.
"Oh, I'll be ready when the time comes. His wound seems determined to heal. In fact--" she stopped abruptly as Iolaus moaned and started thrashing on the bed. Slipping to the bedside, Gabrielle took his hand in hers, and reached to his cheek with the other. "Shhh... Iolaus... It's ok..."
He relaxed, then opened his eyes, looking at Gabrielle with an unfocused gaze. "Oh... Hi. What are you doing here? It's the weirdest thing... I was arguing with this really ugly guy, and he was yelling at me because I didn't have a gold coin..." He tried to rise. "Ow!"
"Iolaus, lie still. You've been hurt."
"Gabrielle?" The pain had snapped his eyes into focus. "Wait a minute. I was at the temple. And... And there was this archer... Oh, no. I wasn't..." Gabrielle nodded. "Not again!"
"It's alright," she said. "Hercules fixed it."
Xena came to the bedside. "Welcome back." The Warrior Princess leaned close and took his hand. "Iolaus, just what did you think you were doing?"
"You didn't know." Iolaus smiled weakly, and his eyes started to close. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Well, thank you... Don't ever do that again." And she tucked up his blanket as Iolaus drifted into sleep.
"Gabrielle, I can stay here; you could get some real sleep."
Gabrielle shook her head, "No. I'll stay." The two friends embraced, and Xena slipped out of the room as Gabrielle settled into her chair.
* * * * *
It was a fine morning. Xena closed the stable door, and with a nod to the stable boy, started the long walk back to the inn. The house had been quiet this morning, so she had taken the luxury of an extra hour's sleep. That meant missing breakfast, but the inn's friendly cook had fixed her a meal, serving her in the large, warm kitchen at the rear of the inn. Xena had followed her breakfast with a trip through the heart of town, then a stop at the stable to check on Argo. All that remained was to find Hercules. Life was good.
Half an hour later she was standing in the inn's common room, wearing an irritated frown. Now that their children were safe, the destruction of Hera's temple haunted the town elders... They were terrified. Hercules had promised to speak with them--to allay their fears, and engage in what Xena had privately dubbed 'son of Zeus diplomacy'. But neither Gabrielle or Gelco had seen Hercules since last night, and he had not eaten breakfast this morning. A fine time for him to wander off, leaving her to deal with a dozen frightened old men.
As she turned to leave, she heard a loud thump. There were several smaller rooms off the main one, each with a heavy curtain drawn across the entrance. From behind one of the curtains came the sound of chairs overturning, and a voice cry out, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute! WAIT A MINUTE!"
Three long strides brought Xena to the curtain. She pulled it aside, to be assaulted by the stench of flat, stale beer and sour wine. There were playing cards scattered on the floor, and two piles of dinars on a table.
Three men backed a fast talking fourth into a corner, and the smell of the place told Xena they had been here all night.
"Gentlemen, please! This is why it's called *gambling*. You accept the risk of losing along with the chance to win. And I'm certain such reasonable fellows as yourselves would never gamble money you couldn't afford to lose."
The largest man raised his fist. "You won all our money! Every dinar!"
The fourth man backed another step into the corner. "The work of Fate, my friend. Is it my fault the gods gave me winning cards?... XENA!"
She stepped into the room. "Salmoneus... We need to talk."
The three men turned to look at Xena. Salmoneus seized the chance, scuttling out of the corner and over to her side.
"He won all our money!" the large man repeated.
"Not my problem," Xena replied, and motioned toward the table. "Is that it?"
"Yes, proud Warrioress. My meager return for a night's labor."
"Well, you're going to be a good winner," she drawled. "I want you to give some of it back." All four men started arguing at once. Xena interrupted with, "Anyone got a problem with that?"
Salmoneus scooped the larger pile of dinars into his pouch as Xena dragged him from the room. He shouted, "Better luck next time!" as he was pulled through the curtain.
Xena sat Salmoneus down next to her at the long bar in the common room. As he straighted his jacket he said, "It was a good thing you came along. Apparently those fellows hadn't considered all the possible outcomes when engaging in games of chance."
"Salmoneus..." she said, shaking her head. "Well, never mind about that. Have you seen Hercules?"
"Yes! Well, no... not exactly." With Xena's impatient look, he continued, "I was sent here with a message for him."
Xena looked at him sharply, "A message? From whom? Did you give it to him?"
"Wait a minute... I'm getting to it. Two days ago I was approached by one of those priest guys, you know the type--pompous, overfed, never done an honest day's work... Hey, why are you looking at me?"
"Never mind, just get on with it," she replied.
"Xena, you wound me. Anyway, this guy says he knows I'm a friend of Hercules--which is true, of course, and good for business. He offers me fifty dinars to come to Trice and deliver a message pouch. Well, fifty dinars is fifty dinars, so here I am."
"So you have seen Hercules."
"Did I say that? As I came into town last night, I met those three gentlemen you so graciously helped me reason with. They were keen to try their luck at various games of chance." He looked nervously at the room curtain. A loud argument could be heard from within. "They didn't seem to have a firm grasp on the odds of creating winning hands, so naturally I didn't want them to get away. I gave the message pouch to Molly--a nice woman... you must have met her, she's the sister of the proprietor--and she promised to pass it to Hercules."
"You *haven't* seen Hercules," Xena said in exasperation.
"Not as such, no. But last night Molly said he was around... Apparently he's been smiting evil again." The noise from behind the curtain had ceased, and it had been moved enough for one of the men to peer out. Salmoneus lowered his voice and said, "Look, Xena... No offense, but those guys have 'poor loser' written on them in big red letters. I think it's time for me to relocate. It's been nice. Say 'Hi' to Herc when you see him." With that he sprang to his feet and hurried toward the rear of the inn.
The instant Salmoneus was out of sight the curtain was ripped aside, and the three men rushed out. Xena rose, and with a languid stretch stepped in front of them. As they skidded to a stop she said, "You boys going somewhere?"
They nervously looked at each other, and the smallest one replied, "Ah... No. Just out for a walk." They edged their way around the Warrior Princess. "Be seeing you. Ah, nice... breast plates." They shuffled to the door, then rushed away.
Many said patience was a virtue: her thoughts were far from virtuous. Men! Perhaps Hercules was at the house. She had walked through the empty kitchen when another thought struck. The last yards to the house were covered in a dead run, and she panted slightly as she looked at the little room. The bed had not been slept in, the meager furnishings were orderly, and the few possessions of Hercules were gone.
"Gods... I should have known!" she said to the empty room. "He wasn't saying goodnight; he was saying goodbye."
Xena hurried back to the inn. She knew who Molly was; had even talked to her briefly. She was Gelco's sister. A child of hers had been taken, and she had been helping Gelco around the inn these last few days. Xena returned to the kitchen and found her there.
Gelco's sister was a matronly woman with an open, friendly face. She was filling a hamper with food, and her movements hinted at a solid competence. She turned at the sound of Xena's footfalls, and said, "Xena! I'm glad I
could see you before I left for the farm. I just wanted to thank you again for bringing back my Bradicus. My husband passed to the other side a few years ago, and my son is my life. If it hadn't been for you and Hercules..."
"Glad to have helped," Xena replied. "Now perhaps you can help me. Did you see Hercules last night or this morning?"
Molly closed the hamper. "Indeed I did. It was last night. I delivered a pouch for that nice man, Salmoneus. Hercules opened it and read the papers right here. Then he asked if he could have some hard cheese and dried meat... He's so polite--as if he couldn't have the whole place if he wanted it, after what he's done for us."
"This is important, Molly. Hercules has left town, and I may need to find him. Did he say or do anything that might tell me where he was heading?"
"Well, he did ask if the Old Veager Road was the quickest route to Veager." The older woman gave a fleeting smile, "It's sort of a joke around here. The Old Veager Road doesn't go to Veager, not directly, anyhow. You need to take the south Crateus trail for that." Molly paused, and giving Xena a shrewd look asked, "Is Hercules your man?"
Xena stiffened. Her close friends could be counted on one hand. Few others would dare ask the Warrior Princess such a question. Yet Molly radiated warmth and honesty, and Xena felt the need to answer. "No, not in any real sense. We are just good friends."
Molly answered with a knowing nod, "Well, perhaps someday you'll reconsider. He's a good man. If I were twenty years younger... but enough of that. When he left here, Hercules looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders; a man as much in need of a good friend as I've ever seen." She looked Xena up and down. "He could do much worse, I'm thinking."
A few minutes later, back at the house, Xena quietly closed the sitting room door. Iolaus was sleeping again, after taking his first short walk. Gabrielle dozed as well in the chair beside him. She would not wake them. Xena turned and walked out of the house.
* * * * *
Iolaus sank into the chair with a sigh. It was good to be on his feet again. With the aid of a stick he had walked to the inn for supper, and afterwards back to the house. A pity neither Hercules nor Xena were there to see. He felt a wave of drowsiness and his head began to nod. It seemed that all of his energy was channeled toward healing...
He jerked awake with a start as the sitting room door crashed open and Gabrielle stormed in. Flinging a piece of parchment at the surprised Iolaus, she screamed, "She left me! Not even a goodbye!" After kicking the bed, she angrily pummelled the back of the large chair, then grabbed a pillow and hurled it across the room.
"Gabrielle, what is it? Just calm down," Iolaus said, and he saw tears of hurt and frustration in her eyes. "What happened?"
"She thought it would be dangerous, so she left me behind... Just like some little girl! How could she do this?" Seeing Iolaus's confusion, she added, "It's all in that letter." Turning her back on Iolaus and the letter, she stomped to the window and glared into the night.
Iolaus straightened the crumbled parchment. It read:
Hercules left Trice late last night. I know in my heart that he has trouble ahead, and I am equally as certain that I must follow.
I'm counting on you, Gabrielle, to take care of Iolaus and to finish getting the children to their homes... And most importantly, to understand that this is something I must do. I should have told you that I was leaving, but you would have insisted on coming along, and I have neither the time nor the heart for the argument.
I have no idea where this journey will lead, but when it's through I will find you. Always remember that every day of our friendship has been a blessing to me. And if this is the trip from which I do not return, you can be sure that Hercules and I will leave a tale worth repeating.
Farewell until we meet again.
Iolaus let the parchment fall to the floor. Gabrielle turned from the window and said bitterly, "We're left to clean up the mess while she goes off with Hercules."
"Gabrielle, just wait a minute." Iolaus grabbed his stick and rose from the chair. "You're being unfair. Hercules and I have been partners for many years, and believe me, there *are* times when a person must do what they think is right, even when it means going it alone. I don't know what this is about, but Herc and Xena deserve our trust."
Gabrielle's anger deflated, and she took Iolaus's arm as he joined her at the window. "Oh, Iolaus. She always worries about me so. If she's in danger, I should be with her."
"I know... But Xena knows what she's doing."
"She was sure right about the argument part," Gabrielle replied.
Iolaus smiled encouragement, "Now... What messes are left to clean up?"
"Well, not that much, really. All but a few of the children have been returned... Gelco will deal with the last ones. Hercules and Xena were to meet with the town elders today. They didn't, and the elders are nervous and frightened of retribution from Hera. And then, of course, there's the thankless job of tending to Iolaus..."
"Yes, that." Iolaus nodded solemnly. "The fellow's a terrible patient, but I happen to know he appreciates your efforts... Actually, I'm feeling pretty good... And *thank you*.
"We can talk to the elders tomorrow. I know what Herc would have said. Something about how Hera's fight is with him, and that she'll blame him for the temple's destruction. And then something else about how most ordinary mortals are beneath Hera's attention anyway, so they'll all be fine."
"Well, it sounds better when Hercules says it." Iolaus started moving restlessly about the room. "But I can be convincing enough... It's strange, now that I think of it."
"Hardly," Gabrielle replied. "Of course they'd worry about Hera."
"Not that. There wasn't anything bothering Hercules before we fought our way to the temple, I'm certain of it. What could have caused him to... Oh, no!"
"No! I can't believe it!" Iolaus threw down his stick and pounded his hands together in frustration.
"You said I had died, and that Hercules--"
"Had fixed it." Gabrielle finished. "That's what Xena said. She said that the missile had ripped a big hole right through you, and that you had stopped breathing. Hercules picked you up, disappeared, and when he returned with you a few seconds later you were breathing again and the wound was much better."
"Don't you see? That's it!" The words poured from him as he paced about the room. "This is all because of me. Hercules had to agree to some dangerous quest to get me back. Xena must have figured it out..." He moved gingerly to the window. "I wouldn't get too far tonight... I'm heading after them in the morning."
Gabrielle looked at him in amazement. "Iolaus, you can barely walk to the inn and back. Two minutes ago you were telling me how I should trust Xena's judgement. Now--"
"That was different!" he interrupted. "I was trying to give you good, sensible advice. But this is about me; I'm the cause. Sensible doesn't matter."
"Iolaus, I'm going to do what Xena wants," she said. "You are going to help me finish up tomorrow. Then we'll try and figure out where they've gone... Xena told me to take care of you, so I'm coming along."
* * * * *
It was an hour before dawn when Xena swung into the saddle and started Argo down the trail. They had travelled late into the night, and only a few hours of rest separated yesterday from now. Xena patted the neck of the horse, "Sorry, girl."
They would need all of Argo's speed and stamina to catch Hercules. When he so chose, the son of Zeus could run like the wind--tirelessly for hours--maintaining a pace that could run a horse into the ground. Xena rode through the predawn gray. She would find him, somehow.
* * * * *
Hercules whistled tunelessly as he walked down the trail. He had just finished lunch, and felt in no mood to hurry. The day was fine; the scenery gorgeous... Besides, Hera's task would await his arrival, of that he was certain.
Rounding a turn, Hercules saw the path was blocked by a wooden gate. A ramshackled hut adjoined the gate, and a soldier in a mismatched uniform sat beside it. He gave a shout as he spotted Hercules, and another soldier quickly joined him.
Hercules shook his head. "Here we go again."
The two soldiers eyed Hercules and grinned as he approached. Positioning themselves before the gate, the larger one motioned for Hercules to stop and said, "Good day to you, stranger. We're here to collect the toll. If you pay up like a good lad, you won't get hurt."
"Toll," Hercules repeated.
"That's right." He looked to the other man, "How much is the toll again?"
The second soldier looked Hercules up and down. "He's a big one. For him the toll must be, say, twenty dinars."
"Twenty dinars? That's ridiculous!" Hercules retorted. "Under who's authority are you collecting this toll?"
The larger soldier played with a club. The other scratched himself, then replied, "Well, we're sort of a freelance outfit. That holds down the overhead... I'm sure you understand."
"Yeah... I think I'll just walk over there," Hercules pointed to the grove of trees to his right, "where there aren't any freelance toll collectors... I'm sure *you'll* understand."
The soldier shook his head in mock sorrow, "You shouldn't have said that. Attempting to evade the toll is a serious offense. The price just when up... It's going to cost you a beating and all your money. Boys!" Four more soldiers poured out of the hut. "We've got a stubborn one. Get him!" He
drew his sword and said, "I love my work."
The first soldier rushed Hercules and swung his club. Hercules ducked, punched him in the stomach, grabbed his arm and threw him headlong into two other foes.
The swordsman lunged at his back. Hercules dodged at the last instant, then jumped high to avoid another swing. Moving closer, Hercules blocked the sword arm with his left, then a backhand right sent the fellow flying into the hut roof.
Two others were charging with spears. A lightning quick move put Hercules between the two weapons. He ripped them out of the surprised soldiers hands, and deftly smacked each in the side of the head with the butt of his own spear.
The first attacker had regained his feet, and while Hercules dealt with the spearmen, he had grabbed a large, heavy tree limb. As Hercules threw the two spears to the ground, he hit the son of Zeus in the back with all his might... The limb broke as Hercules was driven to his knees.
The soldier's shout of triumph died in his throat. To his horror, Hercules shrugged his shoulders, and slowly turned as he regained his feet, saying, "I *really* hate that!"
The frightened soldier had backed away several paces when the mens' attention was captured by pounding hooves and the piercing cry of "Cheeeeeeeee!" Argo thundered to a stop. Leaping from the saddle, Xena executed a flip in a graceful arc, landing in easy reach of the dumfounded soldier. A single high kick sent him flying. Turning to Hercules she said, "Salmoneus says, 'Hi'."
Hercules and Xena stood at a bend in the trail about 200 yards from the toll gate. There was a warm, light breeze, and the air was alive with the sleepy drone of dragonflies. Argo watched impassively as the two argued.
"No! Absolutely not!"
Xena wore her most innocent look, "I'm only suggesting that I travel with you for a while. Most men would welcome my company."
Plainly exasperated, Hercules returned, "Look... I have personal business to attend to. You would slow me down and get in the way. So why don't you just hop up on Argo, and 'Warrior Princess' yourself back to Trice."
"Hercules, guile is not your strength, nor rudeness your skill. You sneaked out of Trice without a word. Why? Because of Iolaus. I am not related to the gods, but I know they never give favors for free. There is a price to pay for Iolaus's life, a price so dangerous you won't mention it because you fear for those around you... Have I missed anything?"
After a long pause, Hercules said, "No, that's pretty close. But even if I wanted you along, which I don't, I've agreed to conditions. I cannot ask for help, nor can I tell anyone in Trice about my task."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Then there's no problem. You aren't asking for help, you're getting it whether you want it or not. And we are no longer in Trice, so that restriction is over."
"That's just slippery talk. You don't understand. This is a scheme of Hera's to have me killed. I will not expose you to such danger... You must be reasonable."
"Reasonable... I have a very dear and very stubborn friend who once told me, 'Sometimes you go with your heart, not your head'," she replied. "That sounds like good advice to me."
"Xena, please. Hera has hurt or killed so many of those I hold dear. Iolaus is only the latest. I cannot risk that happening to you."
Xena held the gaze of the larger man. "Iolaus saved my life too, back at the temple. I owe him for that, and I owe you much more. If not for you, *I* might have been one of those warlords rounding up the children... I've learned that you can't out sincere the son of Zeus, so I won't try. But unless you are willing to kill or cripple me, I am coming with you."
The two heroes stared at one another for long seconds. Finally, Hercules said, "Alright, but this time there can be no tricks. I have given my promise to see this through. In that you will not interfere. Agreed?"
Xena gave a curt nod.
"OK, mount up. We have a long way to go."
* * * * *
Night was fast approaching as Gabrielle and Iolaus walked through the center of town. The last of the affair was in order. They could leave Trice in good conscience--if only they could discover where to go. Thus far, they had found no clue that would lead to Hercules or Xena.
Gabrielle struggled to hide her impatience. Iolaus was improved over yesterday, but his pace was slow, and he leaned heavily on his stick. "Someone at the stable *has* to know something," she said, not for the first time. "Xena must have left before noon, yesterday. There should have been lots of people around when she got Argo."
"I hope you're right," Iolaus replied. "It feels like I've talked to every person in town... twice. The only one we've missed is Gelco's sister, and there's no reason to believe she's knows any more than the rest. Besides, her farm is a good day's travel away. I don't-- Listen. Hear that?"
The pair stopped. The street was deserted, and in seconds they heard it again... A crash followed by a weak cry for help.
"It's coming from this alley!" Gabrielle exclaimed, and they hurried to the alley entrance. Through the gloom they could see the backs of three soldiers.
"Come on, you old fool, you must have more money than that!" the largest soldier said as he picked a frail old man up from the ground, then threw him down again face first in the trash.
Iolaus looked at Gabrielle and began, "Get back. I'll--"
She darted past him, rushing to the three soldiers with her staff at the ready. Stopping behind them, she said, "Stop that! Leave him alone!"
Iolaus hobbled up as the three men turned. "Well, well... A little girl and a cripple. Maybe *you* have some money." The large man motioned to the others. "Get her, and keep her quiet!" He pulled a club from his belt and ran at Iolaus, while the others rushed Gabrielle.
The lead soldier made an abrupt stop as the end of Gabrielle's staff rammed him in the stomach. The second attacked with a sword, forcing her into several parries.
The leader swung his club at Iolaus, who ducked under and whacked the man sharply on the shin with his stick. As the larger man fell back, hopping on one foot, Iolaus smacked him across the wrist, making him drop the club. Dodging a roundhouse swing, Iolaus brought his stick up hard between the legs of the other man, then broke the stick over the soldier's head as he doubled over.
Gabrielle knocked the sword from the hand of her opponent, then a quick whirl caught him in the side of the head with her staff, sending him flying. As the first soldier rushed her again, she dodged and tripped him. He stumbled forward into Iolaus, who smashed him to the ground with a hard right.
The old man rustled feebly in the trash. As the two friends went to help, the soldiers regained their feet and fled.
"Careful, we'll help you," Gabrielle said as she knelt next to the old man.
"I... I think I'm all right," he replied as Gabrielle helped him sit up. The old fellow was skinny as a stick, and his thin face was a mass of wrinkles surrounded by long white hair, but his eyes were bright and alive as they darted from Gabrielle to Iolaus. "Thank you. Thank you both... Oh, you're hurt!" And he pointed a long, bony finger at Iolaus.
"Oh, Iolaus!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she helped the man to his feet. Iolaus had grabbed her staff and was leaning on it, and she could see a wet stain, black in the poor light, growing on his vest.
"It's alright," he replied. "I've torn my chest wound open, that's all."
The old man gestured for them to follow. "Well, come. My shop is just around the corner. We can attend to you there."
"Say, you've gotten pretty good with that staff," Iolaus said as they followed out of the alley.
Gabrielle smiled at the complement. "Well, you can't help but learn when Xena's around... Who were those soldiers? Any idea?"
"Deserters," he replied in disgust. "From the army of Gluteus, by the look of the uniform."
"Here we are!" The old man unlocked the door to a small shop. "Careful. Wait until I get some light."
Iolaus looked at the sign above the door as the old man disappeared into the shop's interior. He read in a whisper, "Huh... 'Filbert the Fabulous. Fortune Telling, Prognostication, Matchmaking, Veterinary Medicine, and Dentistry.'" He snickered, and dropped his voice lower still. "Ah... Mr. Fabulous, could you please tell me the fortune of my sick pig?"
Filbert appeared with lit candles. "Come in. I think I have some bandages here somewhere." He led Iolaus to a chair, then bowed to them both. "Filbert the Fabulous, at your service." Then he shuffled off to find bandages and more candles.
"Nothing too bad," Gabrielle announced after a quick appraisal of the wound. "It's almost closed on its own... Stop wiggling!" She bandaged him with a practiced skill. "Done. At least that leg gash didn't reopen."
Filbert, who had been fetching things for Gabrielle, said, "I really wish I could repay you for your help... I know, I'll do a Reading for you... I can commune with the spirits, consult the Fates, and plumb the ancient mysteries on your behalf!"
Gabrielle began, "That really won't be nec--"
"Unless either of you need a tooth pulled?"
"No!" they replied in unison.
"Then a Reading it is." He sat Gabrielle next to Iolaus, pulled up a small table, dragged up a trunk, then sat opposite them. "Ah... Haven't used this in a while; it should be all charged up," he said as he pulled a glass ball from the trunk and set it on the table.
"Now... Think good thoughts and try and attune yourselves to the crystal." Filbert waved his hand over the ball twice, then said, "You want a question answered. This is very clear. Let me see... The two of you plan to run away and marry against your families' wishes, and you want to know if you can
ever return..." Filbert raised his head and looked sharply at the crow's-feet around Iolaus's eyes, then said quickly, "Oh, no! That can't possibly be right."
Filbert moved a candle closer to the ball and muttered, "Perhaps a little more light. Now, deep breath and good thoughts! Ah... Here it is." He looked at Iolaus. "Your daughter here is with child, and the two of you need help determining which local fellow is the father."
"Hey!" Gabrielle exploded.
"Look, Filbert, this isn't--" Iolaus was interrupted by a loud thump, as Filbert banged the glass ball against the table.
"A lot of static in the ether," the old man explained. "That's better." He peered into the globe. "You're friends have gone, and you want to find them." Noticing the pair's sudden interest, he paused dramatically, then said, "I see a village... Thelopus. In this village is a tavern, called... The Leather Mug. There is a man at this tavern; you will know him when you see him. He has the information you seek."
"And?" prompted Gabrielle.
"And you will know him when you see him. He has the information you seek."
"That's pretty vague," said Iolaus.
"What do you want, his mother's maiden name? Look, I can only report what's in the glass... Tell you what, since you two have been so good to me, I'll throw in a money back guarantee." Filbert rose. "I don't wish to be rude, but it's been a hard day, and a Reading always wears me out..." With a last round of thanks, Filbert showed them out of the shop.
"That was quite a performance," Iolaus said after they had moved a short distance away. "Still, he seems like a nice old guy."
"Well, I can prognosticate, too," Gabrielle replied. "And I see us continuing to the stable in hopes of finding a real lead. If we reach a dead end here in Trice..." She shrugged. "He *did* give us the actual names of a town and a tavern."
"Gabrielle, Thelopus is less than 10 miles from here. He's probably drunk ale in that tavern a hundred times. But... Molly's farm lies in that direction, so we could stop by on the way out there."
An old man shuffled past them, walked up to Filbert's shop, and let himself in.
"Did you see that?" Iolaus asked. "It looks like Filbert has a brother. I wonder what he's called?"
"Wilbert the Wondrous? We better get to the stable while there's still someone around. Come on... Dad!"
* * * * *
The morning sun was peeking over the treetops as Xena lifted the saddle onto Argo's back. Yesterday's travel had been hard and fast; today promised more of the same. Hercules had done little to hide his bad temper, and showed his grudging acceptance of her by saying only the necessary minimum. Xena shook her head with a wry grimace: Hercules, the son of Zeus, was pouting. Well, no matter.
The horse was saddled and the meager camp equipment packed when Hercules approached. "Xena."
She raised a foot to the stirrup, "I'm ready."
"It's a nice morning. Let's walk a bit."
The two heroes had walked several miles in silence, Argo placidly following, when Hercules said, "Xena, I want to apologize; I've acted badly and I'm sorry. It's just... you have this knack of helping me when I'd rather you didn't."
"No harm done," and she gave a half smile. "It's a gift. Mother always said I was headstrong."
"Very observant woman, your mother. But I want you to know that I do appreciate your help... And your company. Thanks."
"My pleasure," she answered lightly. "Now, if you would really like to please your helpful, generous--and *patient* traveling companion, perhaps you can tell me where we are going, and what needs to be done."
"Oh, right," he replied. "I've thought about that. I dislike living up to the letter of a promise while avoiding its spirit--that's a trick of the gods. But none of this was arranged for my benefit, but rather to attack me through my friends. So I can tell you.
"I've been given a two part task. First, I need to go to Flarn, a town at the southern tip of Crateus Bay. Ever been there?"
Xena gave another lopsided smile, "No. My army and I were planning to conquer that region after we had dealt with the mighty Hercules."
"The best laid plans of mice and warriors..." Hercules replied in a mock smug voice. "I haven't been there either. There is supposed to be a cave in the hills outside of town--called Giants Cave, by the way--and hidden in this cave is a weapon... 'The Titan's Hammer'. I--"
Xena interrupted, "Let me guess... 'Forged by Hephaestus, The Hammer of the Titans is a fearsome weapon of immense and terrible power'."
"Nice try, but not this time. It's supposed to be much older, from the time before the gods. I never really believed it existed. It's from an old legend--from fireside stories told to the young of Olympus.
"Anyway, after I get the Hammer, I'm to follow the west coast of the bay north to Treacle. There--" he paused. "This... is going to be difficult.
There, I've been told, a group of strange beings from another Place are working to build a gate between their Place and here. I'm to use the Hammer to destroy the gate and stop the incursion."
Xena blinked several times. "Right. Strange beings, gates, incursions... What? Other places?"
The trail had taken them into a woods. A flock of birds winged away in a noisy flutter, frightened by Xena's exclamation.
"Yeah," Hercules replied. "At least the part about the other Places could be true. See... The Underworld and Olympus are really other Places, tied to our world but not physically connected. The gods can travel from one to another at will. The gods can also open gates between these Places, and sometimes a gate will occur naturally."
"Like the time I swam to the bottom of a lake to reach the Underworld," Xena said.
"Exactly... Nice of you to help Hades. I hear he's going to use the incident to petition for a staff increase.
"Well, the gods have always known that countless more of these 'other Places' exist. But the gods have little power or influence there, so they pretty much ignore them, and try to close down any gate that pops open. Athena calls them other 'dimensions', and believes that they exist in endless number... She says that if you could travel between them, and pick the ones you wanted, you could find a dimension that was arranged in any pattern you can imagine."
"Like a world where Joxer's a god?" Xena shuddered. "I'll keep ours, thank you."
"Or a world where the gods don't exist," he replied. "These gates open more often than the gods care to admit. It is said that some of the more bizarre creatures, like the sea monsters, actually came here from elsewhere."
"And we are suppose to stop an incursion? An invasion?" she asked.
"It seems a group of beings from one of these dimensions got to our world. They're near Treacle, and they have the means to build a gate between our world and theirs. I've been told that once the gate is open, they plan a major invasion--with looting, conquering, and enslaving their goals. The Hammer of the Titans is the only weapon that can destroy their gate."
Xena gave Hercules a quick glance and pursed her lips, "Ok. We grab the hammer, stomp the invaders, and smash the gate... That should fill a morning. Anything else?"
"Only that I was also told that it's a scheme by Hera to get me killed, and that I should walk away and leave Iolaus dead," Hercules replied.
"Huh. Some choice."
"Look, Xena. This is something I have to do... But not you. The best thing you could do is to get on your horse and ride in the opposite direction."
"It's already been settled, Hercules." With his reluctant nod, she smiled encouragingly. "Besides, I promised Gabrielle an epic tale. We'll manage... One thing seems odd. If that hammer was made for a Titan, even if you can lift it, it will be too large to wield."
"I know. But it doesn't have to make sense. Some, or all of this may be a lie. The only thing I... The only thing *we*," he amended on a glance from Xena, "can do is follow through and see what happens."
The trail took a bend to the right. As the two friends rounded the curve they saw seven men ahead--brandishing clubs and swords as they blocked the trail.
"Bandits," said Hercules in disgust. The Warrior Princess drew her sword as the pair walked on.
"Hey, look at the big pretty boy and the overgrown dyke!" "Woo, baby. We'll have a *good* time after we finish with your boyfriend." "There'll be some fine ridin' today! Let you meet some *real* men!" the waiting men taunted. But their shouts diminished as Hercules and Xena drew closer, and they exchanged nervous looks as the seconds passed. The heroes were ten yards from the nearest bandit when he turned and ran. The others scrambled to follow.
Hercules said, "Looks like the bandits are getting smarter."
"You'd never tell from their vocabulary," Xena replied as she sheathed her sword. "Guess it's time we cover some ground... Are you ready?" A nod from Hercules sent her up on Argo.
Xena looked down at her friend. With a twinkle in her eye and in a voice dripping with honey she said, "You know, Hercules, a strong warlord would clear these bandits out in no time."
A shake of the reins, and Argo was off.
* * * * *
Gabrielle and Iolaus huddled in the back of the open cart as the rain poured down. The farmer who drove the cart seemed oblivious to the rain, and had maintained a steady monolog since offering them a ride.
"...and he flew through the air, smashing the table." The farmer gestured forward and said, "That will be Thelopus just over the hill. Anyway, as I was sayin'... So the man turns to his wife and says, 'Well, it's a good thing I didn't mention the dirty knife!'." The farmer howled with laughter.
A few yards farther and he brought the cart to a halt. "This is where I
turn off. The Leather Mug is the biggest building in town, you can't miss it. It should be busy, too, what with the rain and all... Anyway, thanks for riding with me. It's always nice to have some company. You folks take care!" He turned the cart down a side trail, and disappeared into the rain.
"He sure is a character," Gabrielle offered as they trudged up the hill. "His story telling needs work, though."
"You were listening?" Iolaus replied. The bad weather and walking through the mud made his wounds throb. "You know, checking out this tavern became a much better idea once it started to rain. A warm and dry place, with a nice ale or two... We can wait out the rain, then continue to Molly's."
"Unless we actually learn something."
The Leather Mug proved to be a long, low building at the center of the village, and they could hear good natured shouts and singing as they approached. Once in the door, they found the tavern crowded and dimly lit. Although she was soaked to the skin, or perhaps because of this, Gabrielle received glances from many of the men as she made her way to the bar. Several stared openly, to finally look away in disappointment as it became clear that she and Iolaus were together. Leaning close to Iolaus she said, "Men. There's no understanding them. You show up wet and muddy and they act like you're Aphrodite come to earth for a stroll."
Iolaus chuckled, then replied, "Someone new is always more interesting. Besides, you're probably the prettiest girl within ten miles."
"Iolaus, I look like a drowned rat."
Iolaus just shook his head, then got the barman's attention.
"We'll know him when we see him..." Gabrielle said once Iolaus had an ale safely in hand. "I don't recognize anyone, do you?"
"No. But then, I didn't really expect to. Still, we're here, so it can't hurt to look around and mingle a bit. You never know," he teased, "the place seems full of potential suitors." Gabrielle made a face, then walked toward the far end of the room. Iolaus moved down the bar in the other direction.
He had exchanged polite greetings with several groups, recognizing no one, when the conversation of two men at the end of the bar grabbed his attention.
"...don't see where there's any doubt," the first man insisted. "They're going to be trouble, I tell you!"
"Don't be silly," the other disagreed in a slurred voice. "Look... First off, we have Hercules. He would help unify the various kingdoms, city states, and the like... He's good at that sort of thing. In addition, he'd be our stud, number one warrior *and* a symbol of the gods' favor. You think the gods won't support their own?
"Then, we give overall command of the combined armies of Greece to Xena... There's none better! Strategy, tactics, leadership--she has it all. And between the two of them, they might even get the Centaurs and Amazons in with us. And don't forget, we still have some other leaders and heroes... Guys like Jason and Iphicles. I tell you, those poor bastards wouldn't have a chance. If the Romans come looking for trouble, they'll get an ass kicking they won't soon forget!"
Iolaus moved closer and said, "I couldn't help overhearing... It sounds like you have it figured right, friend. Of course, we also have that fine warrior, Iolaus!"
The two men looked at each other, then said in unison, "Who?"
Iolaus saw Gabrielle waving to him from across the room. He said, "Uh, never mind," and went to her.
Gabrielle was standing behind two men. They were deep in conversation, and Iolaus recognized the heavy set one as Salmoneus. As he stood beside Gabrielle, he could hear the portly salesman say, "This could work! In addition to their regular duties, we could have them make appearances at festivals, coronations, state celebrations, other athletic contests... The real beauty of the plan is that the appearance fees would pay all the costs, and we would make our dinars from the *merchandising*. Official apparel, autographed paintings, the works! And I've got a great name for them... The Athens Olympian Cheerleaders!
"All the girls would have to be drop dead gorgeous, of course. And they would all have to have huge... pompoms. Naturally, I would have to interview--"
"Salmoneus," Gabrielle interrupted, "can we talk to you for a minute?"
"Iolaus! Gabrielle! What a surprise. Be right with you." He turned to the other man and said quickly, "You think about it. I'll be back in a minute."
Rubbing his hands together in satisfaction, Salmoneus lead the pair a short distance from the table. "This is how great enterprises are started. Now, what brings you two to this muddy excuse for a village?"
With a look of amusement at Gabrielle, Iolaus said, "Well, we know him when we see him. So, do you have the information we seek?"
He gave Iolaus a blank look, then said to Gabrielle, "You really should try to keep him out of the rain."
"We're looking for Hercules," Iolaus explained. "We hoped you might know
where he is."
"Both he and Xena left Trice," Gabrielle added, and she told Salmoneus about the disappearance of their two friends.
Salmoneus wore a pained look. "You really think Herc is in trouble, huh? Well, he's probably heading for Flarn, and from there going to Treacle."
"What? That's incredible. How do you know that?" Iolaus asked.
"Well..." The salesman explained about the message for Hercules, and then said, "I was curious just what was so important that it was worth fifty dinars, so I took a quick peek inside the message pouch. There were a number of papers there, and the top page was a map. It was marked with a route through Flarn to Treacle."
"What did the message say?" asked Gabrielle.
"Hey, do I look like someone who would read another person's mail?... Don't answer that! I just saw the top page. Guess I should have read it all."
"Iolaus, we have to get moving. They have a big head start."
"Hold on a minute," he replied to his companion. "Flarn... Treacle... There's something odd here." He snapped his fingers. "Salmoneus, do you have a map of that region?"
"Sure. You need to know the lay of the land when you travel as much as I do. Hang on a second." Salmoneus retrieved a small satchel, pulled out a map, and spread it on an empty table.
"Ha, I was right!" Iolaus said as he pointed to the map. "Look. Flarn is southwest of here, at the southern tip of Crateus Bay. Treacle well north on the western side. If we just follow Herc and Xena, we won't catch them until whatever's going to happen is over. But if we head straight west to..." he peered closely at the map, "Pheables, then find someone to take us across the bay, we can save time... Get there in time to do some good, perhaps even get there first!"
Salmoneus rolled up the map. With an unhappy look he said, "If Hercules is in trouble, I..." He hesitated, then finished with a rush. "I could go along and help, if you think it would do any good."
Gabrielle and Iolaus exchanged glances, then Gabrielle went and hugged the salesman. "Thanks, Salmoneus. We both really appreciate it. But I don't think that will be necessary."
"You can help, though," Iolaus added. "It will take a few more days for me to heal completely. You can check around and see if there is anyone travelling with a wagon or cart to the west. We'll make better time for the next few days if I can ride. After that, Gabrielle and I will be fine."
To be continued.
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